Sometimes it’s tough to be the new kid in school.
Routines are different, surroundings have changed and it can be difficult to get your bearings.
The four newcomers on the Penn men’s tennis team have found the transition to playing college tennis nothing but smooth.
The Red and Blue have played well for most of this season. Penn has dropped only one contest at home and managed to knock off No. 70 Dartmouth for its first Ivy win of the season on Saturday.
While the team features veterans like junior captains Nikola Kocovic and Zach Katz, much of the Quakers’ success this year has been due to the team’s four newest members – freshmen Blaine Willenborg, Vim De Alwis and Austin Kaplan and sophomore transfer Ismael Lahlou.
“We have so many new guys who are starting this year, almost half of our team is made up of those four players,” coach David Geatz said. “I think we’ve built a good program and there’s a lot to expect from these guys in the future.”
Entering this season, it was unknown whether such a young team would be able to compete against veteran lineups. But the newcomers have proved that they can hold their own so far.
De Alwis began his college career with a strong fall semester. The Jakarta, Indonesia, native finished 10-5 last semester and even advanced to the finals of Penn’s home invitational tournament in September.
The rookie has continued his strong play of late. De Alwis’ 12 spring wins are second on the team and include a clutch singles victory against Harvard on Sunday.
“Pound for pound, Vim is one of the best athletes in college tennis,” Geatz said. “He’s unbelievably strong for his size and he has all kinds of athletic ability.”
Willenborg and Kaplan have also experienced quite a bit of success in their freshman seasons.
After 10 singles victories in the fall, Willenborg has followed up his early-season performance with a 9-7 record this spring. Against Dartmouth, Willenborg won his singles match in three clutch sets to clinch Penn’s first conference victory.
For Kaplan, the opportunity to play singles matches has come sparingly this semester. Nevertheless, the rookie captured the consolation title at the Princeton Invitational in September.
The story is different for Penn’s fourth newcomer, Ismael Lahlou. The sophomore from Morocco played one season at Georgia State last year before transferring to Penn.
“In terms of tennis, there hasn’t been a huge change,” Lahlou said. “But the academics are obviously more challenging, and it’s somewhat difficult to balance between the two.”
Despite playing in a new environment, Lahlou, like the three freshmen, has been phenomenal this season. He leads the team with 13 singles victories and has improved his play throughout the spring.
Besides their competitive bond on the court, the four newcomers have formed an enduring friendship off the court as well.
“We all live in the Quad, so we usually walk to practice together,” Lahlou said. “We eat together sometimes and we always have a chance to bond off the court.”
When watching his young players interact off the court, it’s hard for Geatz not to be encouraged with what he sees.
“The chemistry between the young guys is phenomenal, and they’re exciting to be around,” he said.
While Lahlou, De Alwis, Willenborg and Kaplan have excelled this season, the potential for success in the next few years has everyone around the program excited.
“We’re a young team, and if we can be a point away from beating Harvard right now, it just proves to me that we are at an elite level,” De Alwis said. “We just need to play consistently in the future to keep that momentum going.”
All signs point towards that success continuing next season. With the core of this year’s team returning in 2013-14, the Quakers could make a run at the Ivy League crown.
“It’s exciting to see the young guys all getting better, and to see them getting along like a band of brothers and having a good experience,” Geatz said. “If you ask any one of those guys if they’re happy that they came to Penn and that they’re playing with one another, every single one of them is going to say yes.
“We’re going to be a contender next year for sure, and whoever puts in the most effort this summer will end up leading us to the top.”
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